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Music Review: Sam Smith, In the Lonely Hour

220px-Sam_Smith_In_the_Lonely_Hour“My debut album is just a diary from a lonely 21-year-old. That’s what it is. It was my way of talking about the only real issue in my life.” So says Sam Smith, a British songwriter and singer whose breakthrough debut album, In the Lonely Hour, is among this summer’s best efforts. It’s a thoroughly personal expression. On every song, Smith sings falsetto in perfect tune about his jilted and unrequited love for another man, a fact which deepens my appreciation for this well-crafted album but never detracts from its universality.

Do not confuse Sam Smith with Adele or other artists, such as Alanis Morissette, whose early music about romantic rejection has rightly or wrongly become associated with raw, unchecked bursts of pain and anger. Smith does not sing or compose what some might want in the form of psycho-bitch from hell anthems here. He doesn’t pop off. His music and lyrics (included on the liner notes) are introspective, not hostile. “I’ve Told You Now” is aching. “I’m Not the Only One” slithers a lament in smooth, piano keys. “Like I Can” is a guitar and beat-driven burst of angry confidence, not a middle finger at the universe. “Make It to Me” is a soulful plea to the world, with Smith singing to a distant, unknown stranger. These 14 tunes are more hopeful than hateful.

Of course, they’re not for everyone. It’s polished pop, with clarity in vocals, music and production. Smith’s sincerity makes In the Lonely Hour hum. He sings the song. He does not molest it or perform vocal gymnastics all over the recording. In this sense, his heartfelt melodies evoke early Whitney Houston records such as “How Will I Know” and “The Greatest Love of All”, and songs by James Blunt, combining rhythm and blues and pop-rock. Smith’s first album delivers songs by a young man who appears at ease expressing himself as romantic, intelligent and capable of displaying, not suppressing, emotions.

His lyrics are light poetry. His music is simple, well done pop. “Stay with Me” (the duet version with Mary J. Blige is not on this CD) succeeds with its sense of conviction, timing and candor and also because Sam Smith seems to understand the power of both his song and his performance. His control of what he has created is part of the deal. He doesn’t wallow in pain. Every note, every quaver, every ending of each song strives to move on. This is what makes In the Lonely Hour exceptional. As he pines on “Leave Your Lover”, it’s what Smith wants that matters to Smith, not just what he’s lost.

Other songs include a jazzy pop number, “Restart”, the reflective “Good Thing”, the bluesy “Not in That Way”, which captures a feeling I suspect every gay man understands, 1970s-style “Lay Me Down”, and two outstanding upbeat tunes written with Ben Ash, “Money on My Mind” and “Love Support”, defiant “Latch” and clubby “La La La”. In the Lonely Hour is not an album to hate men to, let alone hate the world to. This is an album to listen to, really listen and relate to, all while enjoying good music without feeling like part of an agenda.

Glen Campbell’s ‘A Better Place’

GOTC/GCThe quiet, introspective song “A Better Place” from Glen Campbell’s 2011 album, Ghost on the Canvas, is the subject of this post. The tune, written by Campbell with Julian Raymond, is both prayer and poem.

This is the type of song that lingers depending on one’s context. I’ve listened to it many times and I think it strikes me now because, in the middle of life, I have less time than I used to. I was reminded of this when I recently drove to Las Vegas to see a friend who’d had a major stroke and I had a car accident on the way, luckily without injury. Such traumatic events leave an impression and, from this, one may invoke a thought which may yield an insight. The thought I’ve had, which is not new but is newly relevant, is that making one’s soul means looking within and actively thinking about oneself and what one’s life ought to be. My sick friend, who wordlessly looked into my eyes from a hospital bed, teaches me this lesson. This is my context for “A Better Place”.

Listen to the tune for yourself and watch the video (its own reward) here.

I like that the song is simple and concise. I like that, while it’s in a certain sense outwardly religious, the place to which it refers can also and unambiguously be here on earth. I also like that its economy allows for some sweetness, in the subtle but marked vocal difference between the first “you’ll see”, which ends on a romantic lilt, and the second “you’ll see,” an affirmation which is more refined. It’s a farewell song, but it’s a sacred vow to those from whom one departs. Anyone who reads this blog already knows that I think that what ails the world is the contempt for ideals in a rampant cynicism that redounds to nihilism. It can be tempting to let what matters go. It can be hard to hold on. Glen Campbell’s song exudes the spirit of holding on, beginning with a plain, unadorned admission of failure in the first line, which appreciates how failure seeds success.

Southerner Campbell, a country and western singer who broke through in New Mexico and came to L.A. who is losing his mind from disease, concludes his video with an acknowledgement of “…the people around me that cared enough to help me do my best.” Striving to realize the best in a world without acceptance of a philosophy fit for man often seems damned impossible. Glen Campbell‘s “A Better Place”, like the Serenity Prayer, gently offers the wisdom that being one’s best is, in spite of the horrors of the world, still possible.


TV Review: ‘The Disappearance of Glenn Miller’ (PBS)

GMiller (courtesy Wikipedia)An episode about one of World War 2’s biggest mysteries, “The Disappearance of Glenn Miller”, premieres on the PBS series History Detectives Special Investigations next week. I have always wanted to know more about the mystery and the series’ three investigators, who team up to solve each case, Wes Cowan, an independent appraiser and auctioneer, Kaiama Glover, professor at Barnard College, Columbia University and Tukufu Zuberi, a humanities professor at the University of Pennsylvania, sort through three main theories about the big band leader’s unsolved disappearance.

Toward the end of the war, enlisted Army Air Force band leader Miller, a hugely popular jazz musician, songwriter, composer and recording star in a league with the Beatles and Elvis for his time, took off with others on a plane bound for a Christmas concert for Allied troops in liberated Paris. The plane never arrived and was lost somewhere over the English Channel. There are several theories including conspiracy theories. The trio of history detectives briefly set up his background (he is known for his hits “In the Mood”, “Moonlight Serenade”, “Pennsylvania 6-5000″, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, “A String of Pearls”, “At Last”, “(I’ve Got a Gal In) Kalamazoo”, and “Tuxedo Junction”) and the three theories: a crash, secret spy mission incident and downing by friendly fire.

It is true that a British air force bombing raid may have been in close proximity and the friendly fire theory is both examined and convincingly debunked. Among the finds are rarely heard recordings of Glenn Miller speaking in German for U.S. propaganda against the Nazi Wehrmacht. Actor David Niven comes into the picture, too, as having played an interesting role with Miller in espionage against the fascists in Germany. They were part of an apparent campaign to encourage an internal German resistance through the “swing kids” that worshipped American and Negro music at the time. The swing kids were targeted by Gen. Eisenhower, according to the history detectives, with Glenn Miller’s music. They were branded as “subversive and degenerate” by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps.

Apparently, Glenn Miller was not on the missing plane’s flight manifest, which the hosts explain is why there was a delay in the Army’s announcement, fueling speculation of conspiracies, and the Battle of the Bulge started the day after the plane took off, garnering all the press headlines.

Glenn Miller’s nephew John Miller, who lives in England, appears and each major possibility is fully explored combining known data and new facts and information about weather (it was foggy when the plane took off), aircraft history, charting and locations. Miller, who was preparing for the Christmas day concert for those who’d fought at Normandy on D-Day, hated to fly and reportedly asked after looking into the plane: “Where are the parachutes?” According to what’s reported here, it’s pretty clear that he wasn’t enthusiastic about boarding the doomed flight.The detectives explain and simulate how the plane, flown by a pilot who was not instrument rated, may have flown directly into plunging temperatures in a winter storm without carburetor heaters (they had been recalled and were being directed to big Allied bombers not utility planes like Miller’s). The engine probably froze, possibly followed by a big pop and, it is postulated, the plane apparently nosedived into the English Channel. Army regulations precluded sharing the Army’s theory with the Miller family that he got into a ticking time bomb that had not been cleared for a flight over the English Channel. Neither the plane nor Miller’s body was recovered. He was survived by his wife Helen and their two children. “The Disappearance of Glenn Miller” premieres on Tuesday, July 8, 9pm-10pm ET on PBS.

Movie Review: Jersey Boys

JB posterWhat began 10 years ago on a stage in southern California, a rags-to-riches-to-rags-again musical called Jersey Boys based on the doo-wop band The Four Seasons, is in motion pictures pure escapism. Warner Bros. and director Clint Eastwood (Invictus, Hereafter) take a light yet layered approach to adapting the Broadway stage musical, putting the audience into the lounge, the state fair and the world of four boys from the Garden State who hold on to their boyishness to varying degrees after the ravages of fame, the criminal underworld and the late 1960s drug culture took their toll on the quartet.

They were a microcosm of American culture and Eastwood, stripping the political correctness and delivering an anthology of pop music with such anachronistic charm that it’s downright fresh and lively again, offers a story in pictures. Jersey Boys (I haven’t seen the stage version, which premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse before moving to Broadway in 2005) traces the band’s origins, trials and tragedies in four revolving narratives that parallel the hits, from “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man” to “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”.  The cast is excellent, with John Lloyd Young reprising his portrayal of lead singer Frankie Valli, whose falsetto defines The Four Seasons, who are indelible in pop music.

Beginning with hoodlum Tommy (Vincent Piazza) working under mobster Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) who is under the spell of sweet Catholic boy Valli’s voice, the first part of the tale is dominated by Valli’s relationship with the protective street thug. Eventually, and the story centers upon Valli’s struggle to stay decent and honorable, Valli’s loyalty to the old gang clashes with the demands of true artistry, which, in turn, is a factor in wrecking his family life. Valli the street urchin goes by Tommy and, later, Valli the singer goes by songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), who wrote or co-wrote all of the group’s biggest hits. The conflict between Valli’s allegiances leads to internal power struggles, resentments and secrets. This leaves Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) neglected and forgotten. The families are even less remembered than that, a fact which exacts the highest cost.

Thus, Jersey Boys, based on a screenplay and musical book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and song music by Bob Gaudio and lyrics by Bob Crewe, depicts with subtlety the music business and the epic, sometimes violent, clash between the creative and the commercial. This is Eastwood at his most introspective, with impeccable period detail in amber ashtrays, red convertibles and syncopated dance steps on American Bandstand with sharp photography and production design. Don’t look too closely, as characters such as Valli’s wife disappear and then pop up again and too much, especially how damage is done and how great performances are made, is unseen. But the business of art and the art of business is on display, too, especially in a portrayal of record producer Bob Crewe by Mike Doyle, bringing the right combination of enlightenment, sophistication and panache into each of The Four Seasons, bridging the gap in Frankie Valli, who must choose between the street persona and the stage persona and the two men who represent each.

What happens costs Valli dearly and Jersey Boys is refreshingly realistic. As the quietest Four Season says when he finally snaps – in a biting line for people that blithely denigrate pop stars such as Whitney Houston, Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus for acting out – “sell a hundred million records and see how you handle it”. This movie shuffles between and syncs pop sensibility and the anxiety of making art and watching it still feels and sounds good. For an extra feel-good kick, stay for Jersey Boys‘ closing credits.

Movie Review: Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return

LegendsofOzAn independent animated picture, Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, is a 3D-animated musical based on Roger Stanton Baum’s children’s books (the author is the great-grandson of Oz story creator L. Frank Baum). Despite some good efforts and finely crafted moments, this is a poorly conceived and executed movie. It is a mess that defies description and it is best left unseen.

I saw the film at an advance screening with an audience of mostly children – companies sometimes stack the screening audience – and their parents or guardians and none of them seemed to enjoy the picture, though they’d entered the theater with enthusiasm. I could easily see why. Billed as a continuation of The Wizard of Oz, Legends of Oz finds Dorothy (voiced by Glee‘s Lea Michele) waking in her home in post-tornado Kansas. But this movie pretends that the original movie never happened, ignoring Dorothy’s dilemma over her dog Toto, ditching the three uncles, who do not appear, and for some reason aging Auntie Em backwards like Benjamin Button. Only Dorothy seems to have aged.

The Gale family’s faced with a government crony trying to condemn their damaged property, which might have been an interesting framing device except that mid-70s-era cars and a younger aunt already deliver a confused starting point. Soon, by way of a rainbow transporter made by the Scarecrow, Dorothy is summoned back to Oz to defend against the Wicked Witch of the West’s evil brother the Jester (voiced by Martin Short). Again, this might have been interesting – he is as obsessive about controlling every aspect of everyone’s life as Obama and, for story purposes, the crony back in Kansas – but Short’s vocal antics and the general plot, pacing and characters are too irritating, frantic and manic to take root.

The Scarecrow (Dan Aykroyd), Lion (Jim Belushi) and Tin Man (Kelsey Grammer) and Glinda (Bernadette Peters voicing too old for the cartoon character) are all back but the magic is missing. New characters, with a couple of exceptions, are as annoying as an itch you can’t scratch. An owl (Oliver Platt) who is too fat to fly and a very grating and bipolar princess made of china (Megan Hilty) join Dorothy’s trek back to Oz – no Munchkins in sight though the flying, menacing monkeys loom over the not quite as yellow brick road – and they all march toward the Jester to stop his reign of terror. Two new characters, an old tree (Patrick Stewart) who allows himself to made into a boat and a giant military marshmallow (Hugh Dancy) from Candy County help Dorothy make her way to Emerald City.

Songs by Bryan Adams are fine, though one rock number is awful, and the animation is often very well done but it comes and goes. In the first song, Dorothy walks around the Kansas town – no sign of Miss Gulch – singing a nice song but her lips aren’t moving, then they are, and on and on. It turns out that Hugh Dancy as the voice of Marshall Mallow can sing and his songs are lovely – he falls for the little china doll who some may want to smash with a mallet – but inconsistency abounds and distracts. Would Scarecrow really say “copy that”? Does the villain calling one of the monkeys a “fuzzy, evolutionary reject” really put the audience in Oz?

The best song, “Work with Me”, sang as everyone unites to build the boat to Emerald City, brings rodents and beavers around to pitch in. The tune ends too soon. Then it’s back to Dorothy taking another journey to self-awareness without any of the charm of the wonderful world of Oz. Legends of Oz is written by Randi Barnes and Adam Balsam and directed by Daniel St. Pierre and Will Finn, both of whom worked on Disney’s The Little Mermaid. This picture has evidence of skill yet none of a proper impetus. Disney’s prequel Oz the Great and Powerful proved that new Oz stories are possible to depict without making a debacle. Legends of Oz is not a debacle. The spirit of the original film was that Dorothy imagined herself saving an imaginary world in order to better grasp how to deal with reality and save something she loves (her little dog). Here, it feels more like Dorothy is already grown up with nothing to learn and that she fantasizes about Oz as a crutch for boosting morale, which minimizes the theme of the 1939 masterpiece (read my review of The Wizard of Oz here). The character, story and movie deserves better.